SHU Students Build Video Game and Careers

FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Students at Sacred Heart University don’t just play video games—they also build them.

Nearly two years ago, Robert McCloud, associate professor in the School of Computing, began providing his students hands-on game design experience.

“One of the most important things for students looking for jobs is to have a portfolio highlighting their skills. How can they get a job in game design if they’ve never done it?” said McCloud.

With the University’s game studio, Gameheart, and a motion-capture lab all set up at SHU, McCloud’s students were able to develop their own indie games. Although participation in this program did not provide students with course credit, it did help them gain valuable experience and form a passion.

“AAA games have multi-million dollar budgets and creative staffs of perhaps 200 people. An indie game reflects the dedicated vision of a small development group,” McCloud said.

At first, McCloud and a group of undergraduate and graduate students tried to work remotely on a game, but McCloud soon realized the value of face-to-face communication. For help, he turned to Ellen Gasso, undergraduate academic department assistant at the School of Computing. She contacted Cynthia Conte, supervisor of event set-up and moves for Campus Operations. Conte soon found two surplus conference tables and 16 chairs and delivered them to the motion-capture lab at the Frank and Marisa Martire Business & Communications Center, which doubles as game development headquarters. The young developers sat around the table together with their laptops, shared ideas and tested code. The new system worked and everyone worked well together.

“For me, a breakthrough moment came when the students realized they should not hesitate to inform me when they thought I had a bad idea,” McCloud said. “Often they were correct. Sitting around that table each day last summer we had productive, creative sessions.”

Slowly the game developed a theme, a purpose and a name: Big Red Adventure. It allows players, especially new students, the opportunity to tour SHU’s campus and become familiar with its layout.

In Big Red Adventure, the planet Tronedeau doesn’t have a university, but wants one. Tronedeau elders decide to send an exploratory mission to Earth to locate the ideal university. The mission returns and reports that Sacred Heart is their choice. The Tronedeau elders gather together and make a decision. They have a race of small pets called Greensters. Since SHU students are well known for their affection for pets, a delegation of Greensters are sent to land on the campus. The Greensters invade campus and the player, who takes on the role of SHU’s mascot, Big Red, walks around capturing Greensters. Points can be earned by collecting hidden objects from inside campus buildings.

“It gets the player exploring and seeing campus,” McCloud said.

Another way for players to collect points is to play any of the mini-games found in SHU’s virtual parking lots. The mini-games appear on screens patterned after drive-in movies.

Students creating the game each had specific jobs. Some wrote code, others developed 3D objects, did level design, debugged, performed player testing and optimized gameplay. They bounced ideas and questions off one another and often, after working hours at a time on the game, they would go to dinner to discuss their progress.

Developing the game was a large undertaking for the group. “I was amazed by the number of hours we spent working on this project, mostly out of passion,” McCloud said. “It was incredible, what we were able to accomplish in two years. It was also really helpful to receive financial support from the School of Computing and the Marketing and Communications Department.”

Jignesh Togadiya, a computer science graduate student, developed functional doors for the game, which allow players to move from room to room and building to building. “I liked successfully completing a task,” said Togadiya, who works in the motion-capture lab several days a week. “It was stressful at first, but I enjoyed the learning experience and contributing to the large project.”

The group used multiple software programs to develop the game, including C#, Maya and Unity.

The game is currently in beta, accessible from the Sacred Heart website. Valuable feedback has been obtained from both computer science students and also potential Sacred Heart recruits. But more importantly, the students gained abilities that will help them attain and succeed in computer or gaming careers. “These skills are translating into jobs,” said McCloud, who provided references for two students who worked on the game and now have jobs using their talents. “Two of our student developers have already landed jobs in large game development studios.”

“Various good things have come out of our experience,” McCloud said. “Not only are they learning about game design, but friendships and bonds are being formed. They’re collaborating with their peers and having some of the best experiences. We’re also working on new games.”

This summer, eight Sacred Heart students will work with McCloud to develop a 3D game based on the Big Bang Theory. The game is being developed with support from a National Science Foundation grant held by a Connecticut physicist, Peter Solomon.

PHOTO CAPTION: Sacred Heart University game design student Smit Patel, seated, works on the Big Red Adventure video game in the motion capture lab at the Martire Center with Indrika Pilla, Professors Ardiana Sula and Patrick Smith. Photo by Tracy Deer-Mirek